My college French minor gives me certain license to do pretentious activities such as reading Jules Verne books in their original language.
Just kidding. Well, about the pretentious part. But yes, I’ve started reading From the Earth to the Moon in French, the famous book about building a spaceship to fly to the moon. So far, I’ve gotten through the first few chapters (according to my Kindle, that’s 10 percent of the book). It’s pretty slow going.
The first chapter tells the history of a fictitious gun club in Baltimore during the Civil War, composed of engineers who create firearms. It is quite a sarcastic narrative about how Americans love guns (nothing changes, does it?), and how the club felt morose on the terrible day when the war ended and nobody would be killed by their guns. I’ve read a few Verne books in English, and I never knew he was so sarcastic. Hmm.
There was one phrase I liked in particular and wanted to tell my boyfriend about. Here it is in my best attempt at translation: “The only preoccupation of this scholarly society is the philanthropic goal of humanity’s destruction, and the perfecting of firearms, also known as the instruments of civilization.”
Since my boyfriend doesn’t speak French, I sat down with him and looked up the English version of the book online. (It’s so old that it’s in the public domain.) And I couldn’t find this passage anywhere. I spent 10 minutes sifting through the English chapter to no avail.
I eventually realized that the English translator had cut a few pages of the chapter from the original French. I later found out that in Verne’s time (this novel was published in 1865), translators wanted to get Verne’s book in English so quickly that they did a shoddy translating job, muddying his meaning, cutting out whole passages, and sometimes even altering the story.
So this got me thinking about how many books we read that are translated into English. Crime and Punishment (Russian), Don Quixote (Spanish), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Swedish) — there are so many classic and popular books that come from other languages. There is even an annual Best Translated Book Award given to the best original translation into English published that year.
So I have hope that most translations are better than that of Jules Verne, who has been ill-served for the past 150 years by those old English copies of his books. And let’s take a moment to appreciate the profound effect a good — or bad — translation can have on the literary world.